I’m a unicorn of sorts. My various attributes are such an unlikely combination that the Webster’s entry for “oxymoron” should have my picture next to it. I am so unique, I’m a perfect candidate for having three fools* from Animal Planet tramp around in a forest they proclaim to be “Rhondy as hell,” while swearing up and down that the crack of a branch means “there’s a Rhonda out there for sure.”
*Only three of the four are fools. I seriously want to have an evening of beer and snark with Ranae. She’s smart and hysterical.
Today let’s talk about just one portion of my eclectic background. I’m a first-generation American and a Southern Jew, born and raised in a part of Texas known for various cuisines that are not just unkosher, they’re unkosher turned up to 11. Yeah, I know. This is not to say my family even pretended to keep kosher at any time during my life, but there were certain commandments in my family when I was growing up.
- There shall be kreplach and homemade chicken soup, on the High Holy Days.
- There shall be Polish strudel on the High Holy Days.
- Lunchtime family get-togethers must consist of rye bread and rolls from Three Brothers, and cold cuts from Alfred’s (Hangs head in reverence).
Caveat: Sometimes the rolls came from Alfred’s as well.
- If your bagels didn’t come from New York Bagels, you have only a bag of round, bread-like products.
These commandments, along with dishes prepared by my grandmother and mother, are my benchmark for Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine and deli. Alfred’s, New York Bagels, and Three Brothers Bakery were Jewish Food Central for the SW Houston Jewish community, and they are deeply ingrained in my upbringing.
I remember going to Alfred’s Stella Link location with my mother and/or grandmother to pick up cold cuts. That location had a restaurant and full butcher case that contained every kind of deli meat you could think of, as well as fish and cheese. I recall the day I was simultaneously fascinated and grossed out when I saw a full cow tongue in the case. I’d never seen that before, and I couldn’t stop staring at it. I had no idea how tongue was served, so in my young head, I imagined the whole tongue placed between two slices of rye bread, along with mayo and some Ba-Tampte mustard. Mmmmm, the tasty sandwich that tastes you back! Tongue was never on the list. Our usual haul was roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, and whitefish. If I was lucky? I’d get a stick of root beer or tutti frutti candy.
On rare occasions, we’d eat in the actual restaurant at Alfred’s, which was much like entering Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and going to a time when Naugahyde chairs and booths were the norm. That dining room didn’t change until the place permanently closed its doors. I vaguely remember the waitstaff as surly women who, in hindsight, could all have been models for Flo. They also didn’t change until Alfred’s closed.
Older Jewish men would be at their tables, so fully engrossed in their newspapers that you’d only ever see their heads when they paused to have a sip of coffee or bite of food. For years, Alfred’s was the only true Jewish deli in town, and the monopoly did not beget mediocrity. As a Jewish German immigrant, Alfred Kahn knew his food, and he knew his customers. A number of those customers were Jews from Europe, and descendents of Jews from Europe, who knew what they wanted, and knew they’d get it at Alfred’s.
After Alfred’s closed, Houston was missing what I’d call a true Jewish deli. We had Kahn’s Deli, own and run by another member of the Kahn family, and they served some of the best sandwiches from the shop in the Rice Village. But he’s since sold that venture. Guggenheim’s Deli came and went in the late 80s, and while it did serve good, substantially tall sandwiches, it was missing something. The food had a cookie cutter quality that lent itself to a decent restaurant, but not an authentic deli.
In the meantime, we’ve had three newish Jewish delis enter the scene. I say “new,” but one grew from the roots of a highly established bagel shop, and the other two sprang up between 1999 and 2001. So here’s one seasoned Yid’s take on our choices for Jewish deli in Houston.
What’s not to like about a 24-hour restaurant, not far from the bars, in Montrose? Turns out? Well…sit, sit…I’ll tell you a little story.
My brother and I went to Katz’s not too long after it opened. I’d heard some of my UT friends rave over the Austin location, and lament that they couldn’t find good deli in Houston. Now we had our own Katz’s! Based on the hype, I was excited. It had been quite a while since I’d had really good deli, and I was ready. Since it was around Chanukah, Allan and I both ordered latkes with our meals. The meals were simply OK — not bad, but nothing special either. I couldn’t quite tell what the big deal was.
The latkes, however, were not simply OK. They were horrifying and served with the most microscopic sides of apple sauce and sour cream. This deli, which states as its mission “to provide the freshest, most authentic New York deli cuisine, painstakingly prepared according to generations-old family recipes,” served us — get ready to clutch your pearls — frozen hash brown patties and called them “latkes.” To paraphrase a 1970s commercial, “generations-old family recipe, eh?”
Look, latkes are made with a number of ingredients, like potatoes, onions, eggs (sometimes), knuckles, cursing, and love. If it’s your first batch? A lot of knuckles. Hash browns, on the other hand, are made with potatoes.
Latkes are fried in about an inch of oil, sometimes deep fried. Hash browns are pan or griddle fried. If they’re frozen patties, they’re baked or microwaved. Also? They’re not latkes!
I know what you’re thinking, “Rhonda, why are you harping on the latkes? Katz’s menu is vast.” Here’s the deal, my goyishe readership of eight. No self-respecting, authentic deli would try to pass off hash browns as latkes unless they know their customers wouldn’t know better. They do the same with their chicken soup, staple of Jewish cuisine, which is canned or, at the very least, just bullion. So, what other processed “family recipes” are they using? I’ve been to Katz’s several times over the years, and I always leave with the same impression — “Meh.” They are not what they’re advertising. Katz’s is to authentic Jewish deli what Olive Garden is to authentic Italian cuisine. Yeah, they do a couple of things well. But really? It’s OK in a pinch, or when you’re drunk and it’s 2 a.m., but it’s not true Jewish deli.
Kenny & Ziggy’s
Kenny & Ziggy’s is a large, locally-owned Jewish deli that embraces the New York deli schtick much like Katz’s does. The exception is that the atmosphere, waitstaff and knowledge of the food is just better. So is the food. You ask for a bagel and a schmear? They know exactly what you mean. I’ve been for dinner, and I’ve been for lunch. I’ve had the eggs and lox, and I’ve had the bagel and lox. I’ve had the towering corned beef sandwich, and it was moist and prepared exactly as I expected. The dessert case is just a slow spin of yummy decadence.
If any of my friends are sick, I offer to bring them chicken soup from Kenny & Ziggy’s. It’s real, award-winning chicken soup with seemingly hand-rolled matzah balls, and it’s the third best chicken soup after my mom’s. Hi, Mom. I’m still in the will, right? That’s high praise. Basically, if Katz’s is the Olive Garden of Jewish Deli, I’d put Kenny & Ziggy’s as the Carraba’s of Jewish Deli. Not like Mom made, but I do like eating there now and again.
New York Coffee Shop
The aforementioned New York Bagels expanded into the space next door to them and opened their coffee shop. Located conveniently in “The Chood,” the New York Coffee Shop serves the Jewish soul food I remembered from my past. If you go on a weekend, expect a line stretching out the door. Like Alfred’s before it, the majority of customers of both the bagel shop and the coffee shop are residents of a neighborhood that is still largely Jewish. That line stretching out the door is a line of knowledgeable (and picky) Jewish food foodies, all of whom are regular, repeat customers. That, alone, speaks for the food. How does the food speak for the food? Incredibly well. I’ve only been for breakfast, and I do love my eggs and lox. I also love their eggs and lox. The bagels are fresher than fresh, having been baked just on the other side of the restaurant wall. And the latkes. Yes, I’m back to that. They’re real, and they’re served with ample portions of sour cream and apple sauce. This place is one of the few I’m willing to stand in line to enter. From the waitstaff to the outdated interior, the New York Coffee Shop just takes me back. This is good, authentic Jewish deli in Houston. This is the Alfred’s of Jewish Deli. Is it the same? Oh, hell no. Nothing will ever be Alfred’s. But it’s damn close, even without a butcher case filled with tongue, and it’s damn good. Ask anyone in line on a weekend morning.